Brian Huston couldn't have picked a better time to open Boltwood, a vigorously market-driven restaurant in the square and squeaky-clean epicenter of downtown Evanston. It's high summer and, mild as it's been, a bounty of seasonal produce has been parading across his protean menu every day. Huston, an Evanston native, may have to overcome the expectations of eaters who know him from his half-dozen years as the Publican's chef de cuisine. But Boltwood is not Publican North. It's much, much louder. The animated conversations of its early adopters amplify, echo, and pinball around the spare room at a volume that makes his old workplace sound like a funeral parlor.
That's just one sign that Evanston, a suburb that until very recently had just a few restaurants worth going out of the way for, has already embraced the versatile model adopted by Huston and partner (and fellow townie) John Kim, who co-owns nearby Brothers K Coffeehouse.
In the two days between my visits to Boltwood, Huston had 86'd or modified seven different dishes—a few I'm sorry I may never eat again—and brought on a half-dozen more. I'm betting most of those are gone already in favor of something else. This is a thrilling way of running a restaurant, particularly since Huston's cooks seem up to the challenge—mostly.
With that kind of turnover, it's natural that there are going to be a few poorly conceived and badly executed dishes—particularly at the rate they're coming off the pass in front of the open kitchen. Huston is there looming over it all, occasionally shucking bivalves, and if you find some shrapnel in the occasional west-coast variety or a lack of liquor in a east-coaster, just remember that oysters aren't at their best in the summer anyway. You might instead start with a dish of Castelvetrano olives and pickled peppers, or mixed nuts, or toast mounted with, say, lightly smoked sable, house-made ricotta, bright fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet Tropea onions. These are listed among "bar snacks," though if it's bar snacks you're sticking to I'd opt for a few of the dozen wines by the glass and altogether avoid the timid cocktail list, which includes a feeble mai tai thoroughly unrecognizable as such and a Sazerac that despite a dose of Malort from nearby Few Spirits tastes like a kiddie drink.
The rare talent for exercising restraint on quality elements is most evident with the larger, shareable meat- and fish-dominated dishes—and especially with the section of the menu devoted entirely to vegetables. Tart plums and sticks of crunchy kohlrabi nicely counter the richness and sweetness of sweetbreads, lightly glazed with a candy coating of palm sugar and butter. Tender grilled squid takes on the heady spices of the curried green cauliflower and tender new potatoes that accompany it, tossed with nutty green pumpkin seeds. Even something as straightforward as a boring old grilled skirt steak (tri-tip on another occasion) comes alive with piquant halos of red Fresno chiles, tart purslane cuttings, a wedge of grilled cantaloupe, and crumbled blue cheese softening in the ambient heat.
Huston is relying on superior products, simply prepared. It's an MO that rarely fails; witness a plate of minimally seasoned, breaded and fried anchovies tossed with blistered, grassy-tasting Padrón peppers harboring hints of spicy malevolence. Or a cold broccoli salad simply dressed with bread crumbs and draped with a pair of white anchovies. The strictly vegetable dishes—most served cold—are the real winners so far on this menu. Sweetly glazed slices of grilled Japanese eggplant are sprinkled with crushed cashews and lemony culantro leaves, and a salad of roasted beets, spiced crushed pistachio, and grapefruit is set atop cool avocado puree, hidden in a pile of pea shoots.
If Huston ever retires the crispy potatoes saturated with garlic schmaltz I'm sure he'll have a riot on his hands. The spuds—blanched, then beaten into irregular shapes before frying—manifest varying degrees of crispy and soft textures, with crunchy bits settling to the bottom of the bowl, a tuberous achievement that rivals the "old fries" at nearby Edzo's.
I ran into a few hitches at Boltwood. A whole grilled loup de mer—the priciest item on the menu at $36—was nearly burnt, the bitterness of the charred skin overpowering the overcooked delicate flesh, and it seemed like it had been thrown on the plate from field-goal range, then slapped with some wet slices of overly sweet pickled zucchini. And a pair of fat lamb meatballs with shrimp in a rich, glistening tomato sauce crowned with fennel and gardens' worth of herbs—dill, mint, and parsley—was a riot of competing interests, all at odds with the winning simplicity of nearly everything else that comes from the kitchen. Dessert seems like an afterthought: a fruit pie, a fruit salad, a sorbet, a gelato, and an unremarkable, lightly spongy chocolate cake that might make you wish you'd spent that digestive real estate on another savory dish.
But right now the majority of dishes coming out of this nimble kitchen give me cautious hope for the winter, when resourcefulness will be even more of an asset. Boltwood isn't just good enough for Evanston. It's good enough to go to Evanston for.